Every once in a while we here at Plugged In get wind of something that passed under our radar when it first released, but that a lot of people are still buzzing about. The indie PC game UnderTale, released in 2015, falls into that category. We’ve had parents and kids asking about it, so we thought it was time to take a gander at it.
On the face of things, this game looks like an old role-playing game out of the early ’80s. It’s a simple, blocky 2D title with little black-and-white characters and typed-out dialogue boxes.
Kids’ stuff? Yes. And no. Because there’s oh so much more here than meets the eye.
UnderTale’s narrative begins with a little human child accidentally falling into a mysterious hole in the ground and finding himself in a cavernous world of monsters. It turns out that way back when, monsters and humans used to live together on the surface of our world. But when war broke out, the monsters were beaten back, driven underground and locked behind a magical barrier. Now, all these centuries later, oops, wouldn’t you know it, our little character has stumbled in.
There are plenty of things that go bump in the night here, but this realm of monsters isn’t exactly as, um, monstery, as you might expect. One of the first characters we meet happens to be a pretty talking flower named Flowey … who turns out to be a rather wicked-minded beasty warning us this is a world where you must kill or be killed.
Fortunately, a friendly goat-like “mom” named Toriel comes along at just the right time to save us from the flower’s dastardly petal grasp. She promises to guide our little pixelated orphan through the underground ruins. But down deep she’d really rather adopt the child and keep him stuffed with butterscotch and cinnamon pies.
If that’s already starting to sound a little strange, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. The journey through this dark world of quirky subterranean cities and puzzle-filled caves introduces players to armored guard dogs, pun-tossing skeletons, secret-whispering flowers, speed-racing snails and a soul-stealing King. In every case, there are puzzles to solve and old-school RPG battles to wage.
But in truth, it’s not the other characters we must match wits against. Rather, it’s the surprisingly sentient game itself.
UnderTale offers players a subtle challenge: Will you be the typical human (and typical RPG player) who wades into battles with mold blobs and nattering nasties for the sake of experience points and level ups? Or will you choose the much more difficult path of finding a pacifist, nonviolent way through this monstrous underworld? The game allows either choice. In fact, you can battle and kill literally every character you meet. But the game also offers praise for those who take that harder, less violent route.
Here’s the catch, though: The game also remembers every move you make—even if you decide to restart a segment and try again with a different tack.
For example, when you meet Toriel she is indeed a sincere and loving mom-type character. She doesn’t want her little charge to venture into the dangerous underground world beyond and stands in front of a doorway refusing to let him through. It appears that players must best her to move on, even though she doesn’t want to hurt you. In fact, if you give battle, she eventually refuses to attack further and allows herself to be beaten. The result is a rather sad scene as she gives us one last warning and then dissolves away. Then, as you move on and meet up with Flowey the flower again, it laughs at and goads you for your murderous ways.
So if you then go back to an earlier save point and attempt to find a way past Toriel without killing her, you can do that. But when encountering Flowey again, he remembers and verbally references your previous deadly choice anyway. Every choice you make, then, is remembered by this simple-looking game. Those choices shape the dialogue you read and the game’s eventual end, no matter how many do-overs you attempt.
This leads to another interesting element. In order to find a way past an attacker or a boss without wielding a bludgeon or blade, you will need to read what they say very carefully. And in that way, you start piecing together the backstories, traits, desires and hopes that these creatures hold for the future of their monster community. The result? You begin to see them as unique individuals, not simply foes worth of a quick death.
The whole process encourages an approach to gameplay that actually motivates you to vex that villainous flower’s violent visions and to find creative ways through the game without killing anything.
That all sounds creatively compelling, and it is. But there are some other important elements here that parents should be aware of as well.
There are no worries when it comes to visible violence, since the “attacks” are little more than a red slash that appears over a character’s image.
That said, some creepy bits of dialogue can stay with you in unsettling ways. And there is also something of a demonic undertone to several of the monster characters, like Flowey, for instance, who want to steal and collect “human souls.” (In fact, there’s one character who hopes to gain the power “of a god” if he can collect a seventh human soul.)
Mild profanities occasionally show up in the dialogue box mix, namely, uses of “d–n,” “h—” and “oh my god!” Finally, there are some totally unexpected discussions with characters that subtly allude to the serious topics of suicide, same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. They’re casual references to be sure, but surprising nonetheless.
Ultimately, then, UnderTale is a pretty unexpected game on all fronts. It’s a thoughtful diversion that seems to offer kids both lessons and charm, and one that admirably encourages avoiding violence rather than indulging it.
Then again, there are some content concerns hidden, uh, Under the Tale here that definitely call for hand-holding guidance from a non-goat mom or dad. And some moms and dads may choose to skip over UnderTale problems altogether, especially when it comes to young gamers.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.